MAY 1, 2011 — Osama bin Laden, the Saudi extremist whose al-Qaida terrorist organization killed more than 3,000 people in attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, was shot and killed Sunday in a U.S. military operation in Pakistan, and the U.S. has recovered his body, President Barack Obama announced Sunday night.
"Justice has been done," the president declared as crowds formed outside the White House to celebrate, singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "We Are the Champions," NBC News reported.
Obama said bin Laden, 54, whom he called a terrorist "responsible for the murder of thousands of American men, women and children," was killed in Pakistan earlier in the day after a firefight at a compound in the city of Abbottabad in a military operation that was based on U.S. intelligence.
Other U.S. officials said one of bin Laden's sons and two of his most trusted couriers also were killed, as was an unidentified woman who was used as a human shield.
The news immediately raised concerns that reprisal attacks from al-Qaida and other Islamist extremist groups could follow soon.
"In the wake of this operation, there may be a heightened threat to the U.S. homeland," a U.S. official said. "The U.S. is taking every possible precaution. The State Department has sent advisories to embassies worldwide and has issued a travel ban for Pakistan."
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Police in New York, site of the deadliest attack on Sept. 11, said they had already begun to "ramp up" security on their own.
Bush welcomes 'momentous achievement'
Charles Wolf of New York, whose wife, Katherine, died on Sept, 11, 2001, rejoiced at the news, which he called "wonderful."
"I am really glad that man's evil is off this earth forever," Wolf said. "I am just very glad that they got him."
Former President George W. Bush said in a statement that he had personally been informed by Obama of the death of the terrorist leader whose attacks forever defined his eight years in office.
"This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001," the former president said.
"The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done."
Obama echoed his predecessor, declaring that "the death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's struggle to defeat al-Qaida."
But he stressed that the effort against the organization continues. Al-Qaida remains in existence as an organization, presumably under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, 59, an Egyptian physician who is widely believed to have been bin Laden's No. 2.
"We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad," he said, while emphasizing that "the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam."
Bin Laden shot in the head, U.S. says
Officials had long believed that bin Laden was hiding a mountainous region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In August, U.S. intelligence officials got a tip on his whereabouts, which led to the operation that culminated Sunday, Obama said.
U.S. officials told NBC News that CIA paramilitary forces and Navy SEAL Team Six carried out the attack on the al-Qaida compound in Northwest Pakistan, killing bin Laden when they shot him in the head during a firefight.
The special operations forces returned with the body to Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. They said they were ensuring that it was being handled in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition.
"We take this very seriously. This is being handled in an appropriate manner," one said.
One U.S. helicopter was damaged and was destroyed at the scene to protect its intelligence. All U.S. personnel got out safely, U.S. officials said.
The role of Pakistan, with which Washington has had a difficult relationship for years, remained unclear. A senior Pakistani intelligence official told NBC News that Pakistani special forces took part in the operation, but senior U.S. and Pakistani officials said Pakistan was not informed of the attack in advance.
A senior adviser to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told NBC News that Zarderi was expected to make an "extremely positive" statement later Monday because bin Laden was "an enemy of the Pakistani people."Slideshow: World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden (on this page)
Senior administration officials said U.S. officials believed they had known where bin Laden was since September. By mid-February, information developed that made them confident that the information was sound.
In mid-March, Obama headed five National Security Council meetings on the subject. Friday morning, he gave the final order to carry out the attack on a compound in what was described as an "affluent suburb" of Islamabad.
"The bottom line of our collection and analysis was that we had high confidence that the compound held a high-value terrorist target," a senior official said, with a "strong probability" that it was bin Laden.
Bin Laden's compound was huge and "extraordinarily unique," about eight times larger than other homes in the area, U.S. officials said.
They said the compound was isolated by 12-foot walls, with access restricted to two security gates. It had no telephone or Internet service and had clearly been custom built to hide "someone of significance."
'I'm completely numb'
Reaction to the news of bin Laden's death was swift.
Bonnie McEneaney, 57, whose husband, Eamon, died in the 9/11 attacks, said the death of bin Laden was "long overdue."
"It doesn't bring back all the wonderful people who were killed 10 years ago," McEneaney told msnbc.com by phone from her home in New Canaan, Conn.
"I'm completely numb. I'm stunned," she said.
"The first thought I had in my mind was that it didn't bring my son back," Jack Lynch, who lost his son, New York City firefighter Michael Francis Lynch, on Sept. 11, 2001, told msnbc.com.
"You cut the head off a snake, you'd think it would kill the snake. But someone will take his place," Lynch said. "But people like him still exist. The fact that he's gone is not going to stop terrorism."Video: US official: Bin Laden 'was hiding in plain sight' (on this page)
Lynch, 75, is a retired transit worker. His family's charity, the Michael Lynch Memorial Foundation, has made grants to send dozens of students to college. He said he would not celebrate bin Laden's death.
"I understand that bin Laden was an evil person. He may have believed in what he was doing. I'm not going to judge him," Lynch said. "I'm sure some people will look at this and they'll be gratified that he's dead, but me personally, I'm going to leave his fate in God's hands."
'The world is a better place'
Reaction from U.S. officials who have been entrenched in the battle against al-Qaida for years were more jubilant.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's opponent in the 2008 election, said he was "overjoyed that we finally got the world's top terrorist."
"The world is a better and more just place now that Osama bin Laden is no longer in it," McCain said in a statement. "I hope the families of the victims of the September 11th attacks will sleep easier tonight and every night hence knowing that justice has been done."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said that "today, the American people have seen justice."
Video: Crowds celebrate bin Laden death at ground zero (on this page)
"In 2001, President Bush said 'we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.' President Bush deserves great credit for putting action behind those words," King said in a statement. "President Obama deserves equal credit for his resolve in this long war against al-Qaida."
Al-Qaida has bedeviled U.S. presidents going back to the Clinton administration. Besides the Sept. 11 attacks, the organization also claimed responsibility bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, killing 231 people, as well as a maritime attack on the USS Cole in 2000 off the coast of Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. sailors.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Bill Dedman and JoNel Aleccia of msnbc.com and NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski, Luke Russert, Kelly O'Donnell, Mike Viqueira and Athena Jones in Washington; Fakhar ur Rehman in Pakistan; and Richard Engel in Libya. Jonathan Dienst of NBC station WNBC of New York contributed to this report.